Today in obvious headlines: Faceoffs are an important part of hockey.
Or, at least, so we think.
The all-powerful faceoff is a concept ingrained in hockey fans from the very beginning of their time in the sport. Most of us can think of numerous instances wherein we’ve watched a hockey game and noticed the commentators lament Team X’s inability to win a draw as a key component of why they’re down at the break.
But upon further inspection, do faceoffs really matter that much? Consider the number of events that occur from a drop of the puck to a goal being scored. Any number of shots, deflections, hits, bounces and divine intervention at-large can occur between a faceoff anywhere on the ice and puck hitting the back of the net. Should we be that surprised when a team has won 37 per cent of their draws and are up 4-1?
I decided to do a little homework to see if there was a clear direct correlation between winning games and winning in the faceoff circle for the 2013 Senators and, as it turns out, sometimes the most obvious answer is the correct one.
This season, the Sens won — “win” being ≥ 50 per cent of all faceoffs for my purposes — the faceoff battle on 20 occasions, and lost in the circle 28 times. In games they did win the draw more often than not, the team posted a 13-4-3 record, versus a 12-13-3 record in the ones they did not.
At a passing glance, it makes sense. The Sens are a team that like to drive uptempo play right at their opponent and get a lot of shots to the net — possession is a key part of that game plan and, consequently, getting it off the draw allows the Sens to impose their will on the game. If they were a trapping team that relied more on counter attacking play, those results may not necessarily be the case but, given that particular roster and system, faceoff success has a strong correlation to winning.
From the overarching look at faceoffs comes an argument in favour of specificity. In essence, should faceoffs matter as a category in and of themselves or would it be more productive to break them down by location?
I did this as well out of curiosity, breaking down Sens games by wins/losses in the offensive, defensive and neutral zones, regardless of whether or not they won the cumulative faceoff matchup. The results were… interesting.
Focus naturally shifts to offensive and defensive zone faceoffs. Winning offensive zone faceoffs ensures you hem your opponent in for a period of time and allow you to generate immediate offence, while winning defensive zone faceoffs ensure you have the opportunity to work your break out and potentially — depending on the situation — get a tired group off the ice.
Consequently, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Sens wins appeared to be tied to games where they won their share of faceoffs in the attacking or defending zones. When the Sens won offensive zone faceoffs (23 occasions), they had a record 13-7-3 (.630). Similarly, when they won defensive zone faceoffs — which, ironically, happened 23 times as well — they put together a 17-6-0 record (.739).
In essence, any time the Sens could gain immediate possession in the two most important areas of the rink they won more often than not. You’ll recall, however, that I said at the outset that these results were interesting. At this point you’re probably thinking, “Thanks tips, I could have told you that. It is not interesting.”
That means we have arrived at neutral zone faceoffs.
The Ottawa Senators won the neutral zone faceoff battle 30 times this season. What may surprise you, however, is they only had a winning percentage of .400 in games where they did. The 18 games where they lost more neutral zone faceoffs? The team went 13-4-1.
Those numbers seem confusing.
Obviously the takeaway here is not “lose neutral zone faceoffs, win the game” — you want to win every draw you take — but those records are, on the surface at least, a distinct correlation. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
With that conundrum in mind, however, I would argue much of the result can be attributed to how rare a neutral zone faceoff is relative to the offensive or defensive zone. It is rare for a neutral zone faceoff to occur upwards of 15 times a game given the nature of stoppages in the NHL, particularly if goals are infrequent and delayed offsides serve their purpose. Compare that to how often a goaltender will freeze a puck or a shot will go out of play and the disparity makes sense.
As a result, while the sample size of games isn’t necessarily small, the event occurring within them is, which is why a team can win so many and still come up empty handed.
The intention of this counting game was meant to determine how strong the correlation between a won faceoff battle and won hockey game is and, after reviewing the results, the answer for the 2013 Ottawa Senators seems pretty clear. The results may not hold from team to team — personnel and style of play vary across the league — but this group appears to be greatly aided by the faceoff win.
While you’re only assured possession for a matter of seconds after a faceoff is won, it was a distinct factor in Sens wins this season. If the team continues to improve on the draw — a full season with Jason Spezza will help — you should expect more wins than losses from the Sens.
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